Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Presence Workshop Notes

These are from this week's Monday night workshop on Presence. Largely influenced by a combination of Patsy Rodenburg's book Presence and Keith Johnstone's chapter on Being There, with a bit of John Wright's Why is that so Funny thrown in. 

Patsy's book goes more into theory so I won't write about that much here, but very briefly she splits presence into three circles of energy:

1st Circle - energy is going inwards, withdrawn, wanting to retreat from the space. Defending by retreat.
3rd Circle - broadcast mode, energy is going outwards but with no connection back to the actor, they are defending themselves by controlling.

So she says to aim for 2nd Circle energy, where there is a constant flow of energy outwards and inwards, a connection, and the person is present in the space and with other actors and audience.

So on to the exercises:

Stretches. Unlocking the knees. Reaching up with hands. Flopping down from waist. Hanging with head and arms low and nice and relaxed. Rising from base of spine. This happens at the start of loads of workshops I go to and it actually originates from Patsy Rodenburg. 

Sounds outside the room. Do straight after the stretches. The actors have their eyes closed and in silence listed for sounds coming from outside the room. It's amazing how many sounds there are. This is excellent at making people present in the space and is very relaxing. I do it just before a show I'm worried about. 

Looking at things in the room. Actors open their eyes and just look at things in the room. Then they walk around naming them and touching them. It's amazing how many things we normally miss.

Mirroring. Actors are in pairs and act as if there is a mirror between them. One leads and the other follows as mirror image. Do in silence and remind them to unlock their ankles and knees so the whole body can follow. Swap roles. Then do it where no one in the pairs is leading, they both copy each other at the same time and build on what is already happening. This makes people very connected to each other. 

We then did it where the whole group would copy each other if pairs were close, it seemed to create one big creature. 

Stimulus and response. Keep the same set up and energy as mirroring, except this time people can have a reaction to the move rather than just coming. It doesn't matter what they do, just keep the connection. This is now the energy of 2nd circle, give and take of energy with constant flow between the two people. 

We continued this but with the whole group doing it together, working together as machines creating whole devices, and then flowing from one machine to the other. Keith Johnstone actually belittles machines in his book but I find them the most useful physical impro game going. 

Then something completely different, about being present with an audience. This game is either loved or hated. Some people do it and they don't see the point, some people do it really easily, some people find it the hardest most frightening thing ever. 

You have to go up in front of the audience, by yourself, and without retreating just stand there nice and relaxed and repeatedly tell them "I'm not doing anything, I'm just stood here, I'm not doing anything, I'm just stood here, not doing anything." But the thing is you actually have to mean it, and not do anything, just be yourself. 

Some people go up straight away and play it and there is a presence about them where we feel drawn into them, and feel like we know them even if this is the first time we've seen them. 

Some people go up and it feels like they are lying, for some reason we can sense a shield of defense that has been put up. So we keep the game going uncomfortably long. At some point, usually at the point where they are thinking 'what's the fucking point in this?' they drop their defenses with a sigh or a giggle and suddenly we are momentarily let into their world and the audience laugh warmly. After that they hopefully stay there for a bit, and realise it's fine to just be and they are not in danger. 

After that, quite an abstract game, I decided to do a more scene based Keith Johnstone game. I chose 3 words at a time from his Being There chapter. I don't usually like word restriction games. My least favourite impro game in the whole world is the alphabet game - I mean have you ever seen this work in a show, ever? Who actually likes the alphabet game? 

Anyway, we started with the 3 word at a time game but I found it was actually making the actors un-present as they were just thinking about the words. So we switched to the 1 word at a time game and it was awesome, all the scenes were excellent. With only 1 word at a time there is less to worry about and the word that spurts out is usually summing up the overall feeling, or the most important stuff, or moving things on. 

Saying 'keep the same energy and connection you had in the mirror game' seemed to be a useful direction, and it meant that inbetween speaking the actors were emotionally connected and also very physical. 

Lots of fun scenes produced including a sailor desperately convincing a captain that an iceberg was coming, two teenagers on an awkward date on a farm, and a wife having an affair. All had platforms and action that were clear and fun, decreasing the words lead to really fun scenes that were easy to follow.

This bit is where a conclusion would go, but I haven't got one. Other than impro done well with people focussing on the deeper things is fun to watch and magical.

Hoopla. Workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Shows Tuesday and Wednesday.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Impro or Improv? What's in a v?

This could be the biggest impro (or improv) geek out known to man! I know at least 2 people who might find this interesting, so I'm going to write it. 

Some people say Impro.
Some people say Improv.

In London it used to be largely Impro, but now there's a growing trend in the use of Improv.


I decided to conduct my own investigation using, errr, me as a case study. I was surprised to see so much meaning loaded into one letter, or lack of letter, and that it's actually all wrapped up in my own personal experience of impro/improv. 

My first experience of anything like impro had been watching Whose Line Is It Anyway on TV in the early 1990s. Usually after I had got back from scouts on a Friday evening. I'd actually cycle back quickly in order not to miss it. I also had a massive crush on my babysitter who would also watch it, so impro was wrapped up in sexual desire for me right from the start! Unavoidably written into my subconscious. And no, I didn't have sex with my babysitter, you perverts!

But back then I don't think I called it impro, or improv or even use the word improvised. It was just a fun TV show in my eyes, not part of a larger overall movement or art form. 

A few years later I was doing drama GCSE with Edgar and we'd do improvisation exercises in class. They would usually be war based and his would usually end up with him throwing chairs at people and attacking enemy lines head on, mine would usually end up with me mock crying and talking about war issues. Everyone would die in the end. 

Again these were just standalone exercises to us, we didn't call it impro or improv and didn't think it was part of some bigger thing. Also strangely enough we didn't connect what we were doing to Whose Line is it Anyway or anything. 

I didn't think about it again until years later, in about 2006. 

I'd been taken to see The Maydays perform in Brighton, as a break from attempting to write sketch comedy. They were making up things on the spot that were far funnier than anything I was trying to write, so I became addicted. 

I went to all the workshops I could, and became a massive impro addict. Back then John Cremer was calling it impro without the v, as they hadn't been to Chicago yet. So as far as I was concerned I was doing impro. He'll probably deny this, but I have flyers to prove it!

When I moved back to London I did some courses with Sprout Ideas and The Crunchy Frog, both of whom used the word Impro for their workshops and websites (Crunchy Frog has since added the v, Sprout is still impro). 

Then when I got even more into it and started reading books, the first books I read were 'Impro' and 'Impro for Storytellers' by Keith Johnstone. So right from the start the word Impro was the word for me. 

Well meaning but non-improvising university friends and family members would ask me "how's the improv coming along?" and I would correct them by saying "actually, it's impro" like a massive twat. I felt that people who used the word 'improv' were belittling something that was important to me. I really felt like I was part of something new, and those who weren't quite into it often used the v by 'mistake' and it was a badge of honour to use the word 'impro' instead, as it showed that the person had read the right books and was going to workshops.

However over the years the use of the 'v' appeared not just from outsiders and beginners, but from experienced improvisers. This seemed to first start when The Maydays went to Chicago for the summer, and then came back calling everything improv. This then continued with various other people going to America, and people reading more North American books. 

Before I knew it there were people saying improv improv improv improv everywhere! At first I hated it, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The 'v' that had meant one thing was now being used to show a greater understanding of improvisation, not less, and was indeed reflective of a new style of doing things.

But it's not just that, I find the actual letter 'v' such a nasty letter. It's so angular and harsh. Ending things with an 'o' is so much more polite, it's like a word that ends with a kiss rather than the sound of an insect. Also I'd already called my group Hoopla, which goes really well with Impro as there are lots of 'o's all making love to each other and having a kiss and a cuddle. I'd already built a website dammit! 

But the v's kept coming. There was then a rapid increase of North American improvisers coming to the UK over the last year or so, and the London impro/improv scene was flourishing with new people and new ideas and new ompah. It seemed only polite to refer to improvisation as improv in their presence, even though they seemed to be doing the same and referred to it as impro in front of me. The use of a 'v' or an 'o' was becoming a matter of international relations. 

Then, the crunch came for me. I read a book on Search Engine Optimization. I wanted to get Hoopla further up google for certain keywords. Within about five minutes of investigations I realised that the number of people typing 'impro' into google per month could be measured in hundreds, yet the numbers typing 'improv' into google was in the thousands. I'd been flying the flag of 'impro' for so long yet the public were looking for something else. I changed the website links immediately, without a moment's hesitation. 

I felt like I'd betrayed an old friend. 

So now I have improv splashed across my website, the actual url is impro because I'm too lazy to change it, if I'm speaking to an American or Canadian I use improv, if I'm talking to a class I'm leading I use impro, if it's someone I knew at Crunchy Frog four years ago I use impro, if it's a long form group doing Harolds I use improv. 

But in the inside for me, I admit it, it's impro. That's right, no v. Impro for me is friendly, sunny, huggy, unknown, new. 

Also for me impro is British. I look at impro borrowing things from improv, but not treating improv as a gold standard or glass ceiling. I think rather than being behind America, impro in the UK is more like the Japanese car industry of the 1970s - we can look and learn and then use our own culture, skills and methods to create something new. 

So I don't regard impro and improv as being in competition, I think they both have things that the other could really do with. 

What's in a v? A massively geeky impro/improv blog, that's what.

Workshops Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Shows every Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Circle of Expectation Workshop Notes

These are from the Monday night 'Being Obvious' workshop from a few weeks ago. 

I seem to be specialising at the moment in taking basic Keith Johnstone exercises and then expanding them and modifying them. At some point I'll tell him and he'll be like "WHATTTTTT??? HOW DARE YOU! YOU MUST DIE STEVE ROE, YOU MUST DIE!" I'm sure he wouldn't be like that. 

So being obvious and circle of expectation. 

In a nutshell 'being creative' in improvisation is not usually a very good creative strategy. When people try to be creative and original they end up putting in offers from a list of thought up creative ideas that actually turn out to be boring, distracting or blocking. When we're trying to hard to be creative the act of building up on each others offers and building a greater whole can full apart. 

So often being obvious can actually be more helpful, as it builds up on other people's ideas and allows the improviser to be a proper human on stage. 

Also for every offer that an improviser puts on, or every suggestion an audience gives, there is a 'circle of expectation' from the audience of what might happen from that offer or suggestion. It's not just a one track story, or pre-planned ideas, more a circle of possible things that might happen. Being obvious means allowing yourself to be in this circle and inhabiting this world so that everything is being discovered with the audience. Trying too hard to be creative can lead to be jumping outside of this circle, abandoning the gifts they had, and desperately clutching at straws. 

For instance:

"Please can we get a location?"
"A bar"
"Hey look, I'm standing on a long metal bar. Please come and stand on my bar with me."
"Hello, I hope you don't mind but I've brought my pole"
"Sure, put it on my BAR! Ha ha ha ha"

Please just shut up and get off the stage, please. The people above are trying to be creative, but it's just idiotic, and nobody wants to act with them. The audience wanted to see a bar. It could have been a Wild West Bar, a Chicago Gangster Bar, a Charles Dickens novel bar, an American diner bar. There could have been policemen walking into the bar looking for a mob boss. There could have been a love affair between burger flipper and waitress. There could have been an orphan boy cleaning glasses out back. But instead the actors gave the audience two idiots balancing on a metal pole, the scene has lasted about a minute, one person laughed because they felt sorry for them and two people clapped once using one hand. It actually saddens me. 

Teaching circle of expectation is really fun:

1. Get a massive circle of paper, I sellotape loads together so it covers a large chunk of floor. 
2. Explain that the group is going to make up a story together. 
3. Explain that the current circle of expectation is infinite, as it's made up of everyone's whole life experiences, all the media and education we've absorbed, our subconcious, the collective sub concious, everything. 
4. Ask for a location. 
5. The location immediately creates a circle of expectation. So draw and actual circle encompassing all the paper, and write the location.
6. Ask people to be obvious and name what they see at this location. Asking people to imagine is not helpful, asking people to see is better. 
7. Write down all the offers within a smaller circle. For each bunch of offers draw concentric circles as the circle of expectation shrinks.
8. Ask helpful questions like When is it? Where exactly are we? What room are we in?
9. If it hasn't happened already put some characters in - who is there? Who are they? What do they look like? What are they doing?
10. Now go back and expand things. I call it zooming in. Let's zoom in on this character, what is there name. Etc Etc. 
11. Zoom in on more things and connections happen already. The group can't help but tell stories. 
12. When a story presents itself ask questions like 'What is the most obvious thing to happen?' etc. Get people to reincorporate details. If something happens it's because of this other thing that has already been said. If someone meets a character it's someone who has already popped up.

This always produces such colourful scenes. If some people aren't saying anything don't point them out directly but mention to the group that if you aren't saying much it's because you're putting too much pressure on each individual offer. Not every offer has to be ground breaking or move the story together. If you aren't saying much just take it easy, and add a small detail to each offer. If a door gets mentioned, say what colour it is, if a sandwich gets mentioned, say what's in it. 

After a couple of rounds on paper you can then stand up as a group and play without writing it down, with the group remembering offers to reincorporate. 

You can then play in pairs, with one person being obvious and the other asking helpful questions and encouraging. 

You can then play solo, playing both roles out loud. 

You can then play solo, just being obvious, and before you know it everyone is able to make up whole stories on the spot. 

Well done!

Workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Shows  Tuesday and Wednesday.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Improv in one class

Most of this popped out of my last Thursday and Saturday workshops. The Saturday theme was 'Making Things Happen', which I might change in the future to 'Letting Things Happen', and then actually defines most of what we do in improv. If I had only one class to teach to someone new to improv, it would be this one. 

Improv in a nutshell:

Couple of people go on stage, they connect. 

They define where they are, who they are, what they're doing. Together they expand these things by listening to what the other person says and does, and then adding a detail to this. 

They continue one offer at a time defining their world together. 

If 'mistakes' pop up they are justified and incorporated into the scene so that they aren't mistakes at all, and instead become important to the scene. 

If something pops up that is going to happen then let it happen. 

Reincorporate all the offers, right from the start, and keep reincorporating things that have been left behind, it will give you structure. 

No need to be on stage 'thinking' what scene to play, just be there and listen to the other actor and expand where you are and who you are and what you're doing together and a scene/story will present itself before you know it. 

Some exercises to do that teach this, especially useful for people new to impro:

Two actors on stage. 
One gives the other a present, defining what it is. 
The other says thank you, accepts it, and adds a detail to it. 
First adds a detail to what they just said.
Swap roles and repeat with a new present. 

For instance:

 "Here's a CD"
"Thankyou. Wow it's Neil Diamond, my favourite"
"Yes, I knew you used to listen to it in the car when you were on holiday in America with your family."

Repeat exercise again, but this time without defining the present at the start so that the receiver defines it (open offers). You can adjust how you hold the thing etc. 

For instance:

"Here you are"
"Wow thanks, a laptop."
"It's a MacBook, brand new."

Repeat both again, but let the offers continue more. You'll find that characters and locations pop up, that's fine but don't force it. Make sure they are picking up on what was last said, rather than what they think should have been said.

We start with an object/present as it's impersonal and so easier for beginners to focus on the concepts of accepting and building as they aren't emotionally connected. 

Next step, same exercise but instead of giving a present you give a location. Together the two improvisers still add a detail at a time. 

"Here we are at The Grand Canyon."
"Wow, what an amazing place. It's so hot and dusty."
"Yes there are dust clouds whirling along the canyon walls."
"And tumbleweeds caught up in it"

If they keep going they'll probably stumble upon finding characters and playing a scene, which is great as now they are discovering rather than forcing. 

Next step, same exercise but giving relationships and expanding who they are, especially who they are to each other. 

"You're my mother."
"Yes and I'm wearing hair curlers and a nylon nighty.."
"Your name is Norma Batty and you are holding a rolling pin."
"And you're my son and you're in trouble for coming home late."

Next step, same exercise but with what you are doing. One actor starts with an action (the 'present') and next actor comes and defines it, and then first adds detail. 

First actor is miming opening a can of drink. 
"Wow, 4th beer of the day."
"Gotta have a beer when you're watching the game."
"Yep, alcohol and sport, match made in heaven. Pass me one will you."

Playing any one of these - expanding object/where/who/what and you'll find people naturally start putting in the missing definitions. Which is great as it's a natural way to improvise, without having to worry about story but instead expanding things and letting yourself play the story that presents itself. 

After this put it all together and get people playing scenes, experimenting with different ways of starting and focusing on building a scene together offer by offer. Remind people of the things they tend to miss out (relationship, where etc). 

People put blocks in the way of letting stories happen when they are under too much pressure on each line, they think they have to be funny on every line, they fear the future, are too worried about their own performance, or are in a rush to make things happen. Remind them to concentrate on the other person and build something beautiful together. 

Saying all that though I just taught a group in Reading and what really got them going was playing character over everything else and when they concentrated on this everything else happened by itself, so there you go there's no definite 'way'! 

Hoopla. Improv workshops Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays. Improv Comedy Club Tuesdays.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Secret objectives make realistic scenes

A few Saturdays ago I was running a workshop on 'Keeping it Real' - how to improvise scenes that were realistic featuring real humans on the stage. 

One thing we found very helpful was the use of playing secret objectives in scenes, especially ones that were connected to the other actor. We found this made the scenes captivating and playful, and realistic. 
Best to illustrate with an example from the day....

Two actors were going to play a scene together, set in the kitchen/break area of their workplace. 

Before starting the scene I took the male actor to the side and whispered to him to play the following objective, so that nobody could hear:
Try and get her to agree to go on a date with you that evening, and end the scene with her voluntarily kissing you on the cheek. 

I then took the female actress to the side and whispered to her to play the following objective:
You want to leave your job and go travelling. You want your friend to give you his whole hearted approval by the end of the scene. 

When the scene played out it was very enjoyable to watch. There was a strong complicity between them as she talked about travelling while he attempted to support her dreams but also tried to suggest going on a date. 
The clash of long-term dreams and short term plans, different objectives and different motivations lead to some really realistic stuff. 
At the end the sight of the male actor trying to get a kiss on the cheek was hilarious, it was like clowning but within the realms of reality. 

Interestingly enough we found over the day that having an objective attached to the other actor, and physical objectives, really brought improvisation to life. 

We also found that just picking objectives at random worked really well, you didn't have to tell anyone else and it gave life to the characters early on. Sometimes objectives arise from the scene, sometimes you can inject them in and they come to life anyway. 

We found it was also important to play the objectives hard and not give up on them. Striving for objectives at all costs and exaggerating their importance seemed to generate comedy. Having a massive clear objective outside of the scenes seems to generate epic tales. Having lots of mini objectives within the scene seemed to generate reality. Usually when we talk to people in real life we want something, consciously or subconsciously, be it love, sex, money, status, approval, friendship, contact, anything really. 

It was also pointed out that in impro sometimes a truth from another actor can make your chosen objective meaningless. For instance you could be playing the objective "I want to get a hug from my Father" only to find in the scene that they aren't playing your Father, as they have endowed themselves before you have. In this case we found just sticking to the truth of the feeling and subtly shifting the basis of the objective to fit still worked. For instance now you want to get a hug from them, because your Father suddenly vanished a long time ago. Playing these micro objectives seemed to keep characters 'alive'. 

In case you're wanting to know more about objectives they kinda get used more in scripted acting but I think they're very helpful in impro, especially in longer narrative pieces where if you have a strong objective it can carry you through a long story. 

In scripted acting it's roughly like this, although I forget the exact terminology:

Life Objective - What do they want in life? What drives them? Might start off subconsciously and they only discover it during the play.
Play Objective - What do they want in this play? What drives them in this story?
Scene Objective - What do they want in this scene and why? How does getting something in this scene serve their overall objective?
Line Objective - What do they want in this line?
Action - What do they actually do and say to get it?
Obstacle - What's in their way? This is also on multiple levels.
Behaviour - How do they carry out their action and line?

In scripted acting actors often start at the deeper objectives/life/play objectives and build the character from their, from the inside out, until they fully understand each action in the scene.

Interestingly enough I find that impro is the other way round. In impro you don't know anything when you first go on stage. You don't know who you are, so you can't know your life objective or play objective as you don't even know who you are. 

So in impro you can actually start with behaviour and actions. Just do something, anything. Kiss someone, hug someone, run out the room. You can find out why afterwards. What this workshop demonstrated though is that you can also make leaps and just pick scene objectives and go with them, and it'll still make sense. 

Hoopla. Impro classes and shows.